Update: I’ve added new info to reflect the gear I use now since I published the original post.
When field recording sound effects worldwide we need equipment that will be mobile, durable, flexible, and capable of capturing realistic, evocative sound effect recordings. You can read more about these considerations here.
In my last post we looked at headphones and a microphone that work well field recording sound effects on the road.
Today we’ll continue by looking at a preamp and a digital audio recorder.
In the next article I’ll discuss the role of equipment to a field recordist, and what function gear holds in capturing meaningful sound effect recordings.
I started using an external preamp back in the days when DAT recorders were common. I found the preamps on those old units weren’t phenomenal. I wanted a dedicated preamp to overcome the questionable preamps on the DAT recorders. Although digital audio recorders above the $1,000 price range now no longer really have this issue, I like using an external preamp for the control and tactile interface.
I use the Sound Devices MixPre. Although I find Apogee preamps generally superior, the MixPre won me over with the value of its features.
The MixPre has incredible limiters; it’s very hard to clip any sound passing through it. The limiters are essentially invisible; you can’t hear them kick in.
The MixPre has Sound Devices’ hallmark construction quality. The unit is light but is made of thick aluminum, so I knew it could withstand the abuse of traveling around the world. The pots have excellent resistance; they turn smoothly and accurately with just enough pressure. The XLR jacks are solid and durable.
I found the headphone preamp was good, although the pot quickly became staticky. I don’t use the mixing functions often. Since I almost always record in stereo, I’d prefer an option to gang the level pots so I only have to set one dial, but this is a minor issue. A nice bonus is that the unit captures audio from 10 hz to 30 kHz.
Sound Devices has since replaced the venerable MixPre with a more modern version, the MixPre-D ($929). The upgrade includes a USB output for digital transfers. It also allows the MixPre-D to function as a breakout box that will work with editing apps when powered.
The Sound Devices 7 series caught my eye after years my recorders breaking down or falling apart. I was able to test one out at the NAB convention and ended buying the 722 ($2,679). At the time only the 744T and 722 were released.
The family of Sound Devices 7 series recorders are essentially the same size. Some friends of mine prefer the 702, which is essentially the same unit but less expensive and lacks an internal hard drive. The ‘T’ series adds timecode. The 744 and 788 have 4 and 8 tracks respectively.
The 722 is fantastic for stealth or guerilla field recording. It has some particularly useful features that help while recording international ambiences:
- Construction. The 722 is made of aluminum and stainless steel and is incredibly durable. Mine banged around Europe for four months tumbling through security x-ray machines and being crammed in airplane overhead bins while recording for Sound Ideas’ World Series library. My 722 has worked in frigid winters and broiling deserts without a single problem. It’s also light, weighing in at 2.6 pounds.
- Power. The 7 series use video camera batteries. These are small and less cumbersome than a gaggle of AA’s and hold a charge all day. It also charges the battery on-board, and ships with international power outlet adapters. The power supply handles both 110 and 220 volts which means you won’t need a voltage converter overseas. That’s one less thing to pack.
- Internal hard drive. I’m often away from a workstation for weeks, sometimes months. The 40 (now 160) gigabyte internal hard drive allows me to stay on the road longer. Sound Devices also allows you to swap out the internal for a larger volume.
- Redundant recording. The 722 can record to hard drive and Compact Flash simultaneously. This is also helpful when I’m nowhere near a computer to back up.
- Attention to detail. Button arrangement, knob resistance, LCD display, sunlight-readable meters and soft keys on their own may not turn heads but together generally make using the recorder a smooth experience.
- User-friendly. The 722 is well-organized and laid out sensibly (with the exception of the endless menu). The simplicity helps during stealth recording when I don’t have time or space to fiddle with details.
There are a lot of other great things about the 722 but those points in particular are helpful when recording sound effects worldwide.
The 722 is limited to stereo recordings, which for me is fine. I don’t really like surround or quad recordings for a number of reasons. In respect to international field recordings, there are three reasons why I prefer stereo sound effects:
- The Neumann 191 microphone I use can vary its stereo image via a matrix box. It doesn’t replace surround or 4-channel recordings but it works surprisingly well.
- The 722 is able to decode mid-side recordings. Used with the Neumann 191 in mid-side mode this can provide recordings of excellent depth and breadth.
- When field recording internationally I have to move fast and cover a lot of ground. Constructing a four-channel or surround microphone setup isn’t practical and attracts too much attention when I need to be invisible.
What other audio recorder options would be a good choice for travelling and recording sound effects?
- Zoom F4 ($649). Zoom’s 4-channel offering. Solid construction and compact size. Its preamps are not as clean as Sound Devices’ offerings, but are still decent. It also lacks an internal hard drive and uses SD cards instead. The $1,800 savings may be worth it to some.
- Zoom F8 ($999). Zoom’s 8-channel recorder. Same construction and compact size as the F4, but with a better screen. Also supports linked smartphone monitoring and recording for an intriguing stealth option.
- Sound Devices 633 ($3229). A 6-channel unit from Sound Devices featuring new, bonus features such as Quad Power, Power Safe, Wingman, and timecode. Compact size, records to SD and Compact Flash cards.
Why Choosing The Right Gear is Important
When I’m travelling field recording elaborate equipment is not practical. I need to be agile, so gear that is mobile is important. Because I find myself in demanding environments for extensive periods I need the equipment to take a bit of beating, so it must be durable as well.
When field recording on the road I will encounter a variety of sound effects. Most of the time I will capture crowd recordings and ambiences. I will also find rare cars, machines, and appliances that are native to a country or a city. This means I need a microphone that can record specific sound effects equally well. I need equipment that is flexible.
But most importantly, since my goal is to capture the soul of an environment, I need equipment that records clearly and accurately and is capable of recording realistic evocative sound effects.
This selection of equipment won’t work for everyone. It is what is comfortable for the way I record for the airbornesound.com library, and for the type of sound effects I want to capture from countries, cities, and cultures worldwide.
Buying the most expensive equipment isn’t the right answer. Getting cheap, breakable and poor fidelity equipment isn’t right either. The best way to view equipment is to consider what is appropriate for you.
Think about what you want to record. Think about how you will approach recording (read more about different types of field recording here). The right selection of equipment will be a mix of practical needs and limitations and the suitable choice to record the most evocative sound effects in your situation.
In my next post I’ll share my thoughts why gear does and does not matter to a field recordist capturing sound effects.
Sample sound effect recordings
Here’s a few samples of sound effects I’ve recorded with this set-up:
Freight train passing overhead on a bridge sound effect – nice good clatter and clean departure.
Vintage Polaroid Land camera taking a photo sound effect – nice crisp classic camera taking a picture with an interesting whining aspect.
Midway fair crowd with games, crowd and announcer sound effect – a lot of depth and detail with plate-breaking game, female PA and crowd milling. Good energy to the specific voices when they win a game.
- Discover pro field recordist equipment choices in the “A Month of Field Recordist” series (2015, 2016).
- Read an analysis of those pro equipment choices (2015, 2016).
- Find the best field recording equipment for you in the Field Recording Gear Buyer’s Guide.
- Wallet a bit thin right now? Learn How to Record Sound Effects on a Budget.
- Learn how to decide upon an audio recorder in the Digital Sound Recorder Buyer’s Guide.